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Catholic Heroes… St. Jeanne De Lestonnac

January 30, 2018 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

Is it possible to have two vocations? There are men who have become priests after their wives have died. There are also women saints who, after their husbands died, became religious, such as St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Jane Frances de Chantal, and St. Jeanne de Lestonnac.
Jeanne was born on December 27, 1556 in Bordeaux, France. She was the firstborn child of Richard de Lestonnac, a member of the Bordeaux parliament, and Jeanne Eyquem, the sister of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne who became widely known and respected for his philosophical essays.
During Jeanne’s lifetime, France suffered from the intense conflict between the Catholic Church and the Protestant reformists. Sadly, her mother fell prey to the enemies of the Church, becoming a staunch Calvinist. Jeanne was pressured by her mother who never tired of trying to convert her to Calvinism, but her father and her uncle encouraged her in adherence to Catholicism.
When Jeanne was 17, she married Gaston de Montferrant. Together she and her husband raised four children, with four more dying in infancy. Around 1597, when Jeanne was just 41 years old, Gaston died. She oversaw the education of her children and considered what God wanted her to do. Interiorly she heard the Holy Spirit beckon her, “Do not allow the fire that I have enkindled in your heart to be extinguished.”
This was a very painful time in her life. Not only had she lost her husband, but soon she also lost her father and uncle who had mentored her so lovingly, and then her eldest son died as well. With the loss of these men, Jeanne began to understand more clearly the pain and suffering of the Blessed Mother when first Joseph died, and then her beloved Son.
After her children were grown, Jeanne decided to pursue a religious vocation and entered the Feuillant Cistercian monastery in Toulouse, about 150 miles southeast of her home. She took Jeanne of St. Bernard as her religious name. For the first six months, Jeanne found great joy and serenity with the monastic life.
She loved the long hours of prayer, the singing in choir, and fasting and making reparation. Alas, her spirit was willing, but her body was weak and after six months she became so ill that she had to return home to Bordeaux.
She prayed to the Holy Spirit, begging Him to enlighten her about God’s will for her. What work would she do? Where did He want her to be? Then she experienced two visions: one was of a sea of youths who were in great danger, and the other one was the Blessed Virgin Mary urging her to answer the call.
After this, she realized that she needed to give her life entirely to God without reserve. She would reach out to these youth as she lived in imitation of the virtues of Mary. She further understood that she would do this in the company of other women.
Jeanne continued to live at home where she lived in the world, but not as a part of this world. Continuing to spend time in prayer and to receive the sacraments frequently, she also gathered persons around her who were also seeking to live a faithful Catholic life. In addition to giving alms and food to the poor, she met with other like-minded women to pray, study, and discuss issues regarding the faith.
This was also a time of reflection as Jeanne considered her call. As she studied the saints she focused especially on Saints Teresa of Avila, Clare of Assisi, and Scholastica — all of whom became superiors of their orders. She also studied the life of St. Catherine of Siena. In addition, she made plans for the constitutions, the prayer life, and the active work to be done. Before this could be initiated, however, the plague reared its head once again in France in 1605.
Despite the risk, Jeanne and her associates labored together to care for plague victims, where these women learned more about those who were most in need of their assistance. In a way, it was a period of formation for the women as their work with the less fortunate taught them to see Jesus in their sufferings.
Finally, the plague waned and Jeanne returned to seeking God’s will as she was called before. She met with her brother who had become a Jesuit, and informed him of her desires. He then connected her with Fathers Jean de Bordes and Francois de Raymond, who were also Jesuits.
The Jesuits had established many schools for young men and now these two priests were willing to assist Jeanne in doing the same for young women. As she worked with them she developed a special affinity for the Jesuit spirituality. The priests encouraged her to do all “for the greater glory of God” — the Jesuit motto.
Although the Benedictine model served as the framework for the new order, some adaptations allowed the sisters to pray and work outside the enclosure. In 1607, Pope Paul V approved the new order dedicated to education.
The first women to profess their vows received their habits on May 1, 1608, just three years after working with the plague victims. Then the civil authorities in France also gave approval, making it the first female teaching congregation in that country. This allowed them to expand in the kingdom under King Henry IV in 1609.
The sisters completed their novitiate and made their permanent vows on December 10, 1610. Immediately they founded their first school.
As their order grew, new houses were established in Beziers, Poitiers, Le Puy, Périgueux, Agen, La Flèche, and Riom over the next 12 years. Each of these houses was conveniently located near Jesuit colleges, which provided the sisters with excellent spiritual direction.
On February 2, 1640, Jeanne died of natural causes. At the time of her death, 30 monasteries of the sisters had been opened in France. By 1650 another school was opened in Barcelona. The order flourished in the next hundred years as it spread to the colonies in Latin America.
Jeanne de Lestonnac was beatified in 1900 by Pope Leo XIII and was canonized by Pope Pius XII on May 15, 1949. She is the patron saint of abuse victims, widows, and those persons rejected by religious orders. Her feast day is May 15.
With the advent of the French Revolution, many of the sisters fled to foreign lands and set up schools in their new homes. Today they serve in over 26 countries with nurseries, colleges, and hospitals, who are blessed to be staffed by these Sisters of the Company of Mary. These institutions serve girls from preschool through the university level.
Dear St. Jeanne, first you raised a family, losing four children in infancy, and then you began a new vocation of religious life. Help us to seek out God’s will in all stages of our lives and to remember that no matter how old we are, we must continue to do all for the greater glory of God. Amen.

+ + +

(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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